The climate emergency is powering a new era of energy usage that’s set to affect how we travel and how we live.
With millions of electric vehicles set to hit our streets and low-carbon technologies such as heat pumps, batteries and electric vehicle chargers to be installed in our homes by 2050, we need a network that is able to cope. Electrifying our homes and moving away from fossil fuels like gas places new demands on a system that sits at the heart of Scotland’s transition to net zero emissions.
That is why SP Energy Networks - which owns and operates the electricity transmission and distribution network in Central and Southern Scotland, as well as North Wales, Merseyside, Cheshire and north Shropshire - has unveiled its plans to invest £3.3 billion in upgrading the network between 2023 and 2028. One of the biggest infrastructure projects in recent history, the substantial levels of investment reflect the scale of work needed to deliver a responsive and agile system capable of supporting the UK’s low-carbon future.
“We have done extensive net zero modelling through all our communities right down to the very lowest voltage part of the network that goes into domestic customers’ premises. We need to deliver capacity to support up to 1m electric vehicles and 800,000 air source heat pumps forecasted to be connecting to the network by 2028 in those communities in order to get people off gas, and off petrol and diesel ultimately,” says Scott Mathieson, network planning director for SP Energy Networks, part of the ScottishPower group.
“This is a joint net zero and economic issue: we find ourselves in a unique situation where we have an opportunity to do an environmental good that is required for the sake of the planet but, at the same time, if we do this correctly, we can significantly improve GDP in each of the communities that we serve..
“Renewables, and the corresponding network support, is potentially the 1970s boon that oil and gas once was – but this time it is consistent with the objectives of the planet and it’s environmentally sound.”
Listening to customers
After extensive public consultation, the plans reflect what customers want from their networks of the future – and not the other way around, says Scott.
“This change will not be led by a network – it will be led by the customers’ demand on that network and our agility to respond to our customers’ needs in a cost-efficient and effective way.
“It has taken years of effort to build up a plan that reflected the net zero ambitions of our communities to transform their heat and transport systems.
“We consulted with 19,000 stakeholders including devolved governments, metro city mayors, the mayors of Glasgow and Edinburgh to realise their ambitions, as well as making sure we also looked at the rural areas that we serve like South-West Scotland and North Wales,” adds Scott.
“We believe that some of the outcome of the draft determination does reflect that very strong engagement that we have with the communities that we serve and what their ambitions are.
“This is about holding a mirror up to ourselves as an organisation and saying, ‘can we do better?’ We have been challenged but always constructively by those stakeholders.”
The proposals have recently been scrutinised by Ofgem and a final verdict is due in December.
What it will mean for Scottish households?
With the Scottish government committed to phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032, electric vehicle (EV) ownership is set to rise drastically in the coming years – but the latest superfast chargers place an extra demand upon the network.
“An EV charger at the moment is about 7KW – a few years ago, people were talking about 3.3KW chargers but that has already doubled because it saves you time in terms of charging your EV. When that is switched on, that will be more than the entire consumption of your hob, your cooker, your washing machine and your lights at that point in time,” Scott explains.
“An air source heat pump will place significantly more demand on the electricity grid again, so we need to make sure these cables are all fit for purpose and consistent with the demand in all our domestic customers’ homes as the UK revolutionises transport and heating infrastructure at speed.”
A new green workforce
Building the network of the future calls for a workforce of the future – which is why SP Energy Networks is undertaking its largest recruitment drive this century with roles covering engineering, construction, sustainability, analysis, safety and environmental planning, all of which are required to enhance the network and enable the provision of more renewable energy and low-carbon technology.
“Across our business, we will recruit over 1,000 staff to deliver our plans across our transmission and distribution networks,” says Scott Mathieson. “For every job we create within our business, there will typically be three to four to support that within our supply chain: people that manufacture the equipment, drive the lorries to deliver the equipment, those who operate the harbours that receive the equipment, not to mention those who will feed and house the teams who will build these assets as well.
“We will actually grow the opportunities for our communities to get better paid work and better opportunities. The network is not doing that on its own, but it is the catalyst for that to happen.”
Looking to the future
"Though we are talking about billions of pounds of investment, the networks component of customer bills wouldn’t be going up," stresses Scott, who says the cost of the networks for electricity is about 30p per day to the consumer.
"We are very proud to be able to forecast as we look ahead to the next decade that our part of customers’ bills will actually begin to come down because our investor is prepared to receive those returns over a long period of time.
“The network of the future will provide a safe, secure, renewable form of generation that can enable the transition out of gas, petrol or diesel products and services, reducing emissions with health benefits for the communities that we serve and ideally creating jobs.
"At the heart of that will be an agile, responsive connected networks business within the energy system: it can only happen with the right network.”